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The Convert

Deborah Baker

Penguin Viking

Pages: 256 Rs. 450

Made Maryam: The power of schizophrenic zeal

Deborah Baker’s portrait of a Jewish convert to Islam is a gripping, balanced account of a fascinating but troubled woman

ROSELYN D'MELLO  24th Jul 2011

Deborah Baker

ust be a mental case," is easily the first politically incorrect thought that comes to mind after reading the blurb at the back of The Convert. Given the diplomatic impasse between the Jews and the Arabs, why would any American Jew in their right mind, and a woman at that, willingly convert to Islam?

Mid-way into the book you realise you're not alone in that thought. In fact, it's the woman in question, Maryam Jameelah, nee Margaret Marcus, who echoes the statement in a letter to Mawlana Mawdudi, her adopted guardian. It was something she had overheard the Director of the World Federation of Islamic Missions say when referring to a certain convert to Islam.

At first she was shocked by the director's comment, Baker tells us, but after having given the matter further thought, she decided there was some wisdom in his remark. The letter bearing this confession has been sent from the Paagal Khana in Lahore, where Maryam is a high-profile inmate.

How she got there is the mystery that eggs the reader on, and which gives this excellently executed biography the flavour of a detective novel. When we first encounter Jameelah she has just accepted Mawdudi's invitation to move to Pakistan and dedicate her life to Islam. Soon after, she's on a ship to Lahore, a long and arduous journey during the course of which she truly "crosses" over from West to East. She then becomes a member of the Mawdudi household and starts to learn Urdu while continuing to write fearlessly and zealously in defence of Islam. How and why did she come to be committed to an asylum?

Baker doesn't propose that the conversion from Margaret to Maryam was inspired by madness. Her starting point is a bunch of letter-filled boxes she found in the Maryam Jameelah collection on deposit at the Manuscripts and Archives Division at the New York Public Library. She takes them literally at first. She empathises with Margaret Marcus, the social misfit, the girl who saw through the Zionist cause, who questioned the Orientalist's misrepresentation of the Arabs, who found no joy in dating or romance, who couldn't contain her anger when she overheard anyone needlessly demonising Islam and senselessly extolling the virtues of "liberal" America. That is, until Baker discovers the letters written from the Pagaal Khana and previous letters written from the Hudson River State Hospital, and learns more about Margaret's medical history as a patient diagnosed with Schizophrenia - it is through this that she realises that the written word mustn't always be taken at face value.

She empathises with Margaret Marcus, the social misfit, the girl who saw through the Zionist cause, who questioned the Orientalist’s misrepresentation of the Arabs, who found no joy in dating or romance, who couldn’t contain her anger when she overheard anyone needlessly demonising Islam and senselessly extolling the virtues of “liberal” America. 

This revelation changes the narrative tone and after this Baker proceeds with the air of a psychoanalyst rather than a biographer. She begins to diagnose Maryam's evangelical proclivity and to critique it not from an anti-Islamic standpoint, but by pointing out the incongruities between Maryam's practice of Islam and her preaching of it. "Wasn't it just like an American to go marching off to a foreign country and tell them what was what. Who was Margaret Marcus to tell anyone what being a Muslim was all about, as if it were just one thing?" Baker confesses. And yet, she admits, "Whenever I tried to turn away, something in her letters to her parents from Pakistan kept bringing me back."

here Jameelah fails as a bridge between Islam and the West, because of her tendency towards extremism, Baker succeeds. Her perspective is usually balanced, in fact, she simultaneously critiques not only Islamic fanaticism but also Western hypocrisy. When speaking of Mawdudi, Maryam's guardian and the founder of Jamaat-e-Islami ,which today is a key player in the fundamentalist movement, she says, "His vision of an Islamic world order that would spread the benefits of Islam to all of mankind was no less high-minded and no less sincere, I supposed, than the promises of freedom and democracy hawked by the West."

Finally, the beauty of Baker's book is in her ability to bring out Maryam Jameelah's permanent state of exile—her inability to integrate with Western ideals while in America and her inability to understand the subtleties and nuances of Islamic society as a Pakistani resident. That she had to adopt a burqa in order to no longer be invisible indicates the failure of American society to accommodate her system of beliefs. That she had to be committed to an asylum because she couldn't assimilate in the manner she was expected to points to the failure of Islamic society.

Maryam's story doesn't end in the madhouse. Baker traces her to her home in Lahore, where she lives as the second wife to Mohammed Yusuf Khan, a fellow member of Mawdudi's Jamaat-e-Islami. But Baker the biographer cannot quite handle meeting Maryam in person. From the moment she enters her room, Baker's immediate impulse is to run away. In the conversation that ensues and the correspondence that follows, Baker confronts Maryam about the discrepancy between her evangelism and her incapacity to actually follow the precepts of the Sharia. She questions her blind idealism and the effect her writing has had on promoting terrorism. Maryam, though is unapologetic and refuses to accept any responsibility for any harm her writing may have inadvertently caused, much to Baker's ire.

Which leads one to wonder if Baker's book is addressed primarily to Maryam and whether it is actually diagnosis masquerading as biography, just as one wonders whether the archive in the New York Public Library had been carefully put into place by Maryam in the hope that one day a biographer with a proclivity for documenting cultural misfits like Allen Ginsberg and Laura Riding would come along and bring perspective to her story of "exile and extremism".

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